Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Morally Imperative Lie in Twain's Connecticut Yankee

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Morally Imperative Lie in Twain's Connecticut Yankee

Article excerpt

Historically, authority (whether secular, ecclesiastical, or some amalgamation of the two) has admonished the individual to eschew mendacity and embrace honesty, the ostensible underpinning of civilized behavior. Twain turns this entire assumption on its head by giving us a hero who repeatedly lies to, deceives, and withholds information from nearly everyone he meets. Through Connecticut Yankee protagonist Hank Morgan, Twain compels the thoughtful reader to reconsider what we always thought we knew about ourselves.

**********

MARK TWAIN WAS A LIAR. At least according to Twain. Dishonesty was a trait he cheerfully claimed to share with the rest of humanity. Huckleberry Finn begins with Huck informing the reader that Twain "told the truth, mainly," in penning Tom Sawyer, but that "I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another" (748). In a 1905 letter to his old friend Joseph Twichell, Twain wrote that "even I am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is." Lying is a recurring point in Twain's fiction and nonfiction. It is no great wonder, then, that the lie features as a major motif in Twain's 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs' Court.

Historically, authority (whether secular, ecclesiastical, or some amalgamation of the two) has admonished the individual to eschew mendacity and embrace honesty, the ostensible underpinning of civilized behavior. Twain turns this entire assumption on its head by giving us a hero who repeatedly lies to, deceives, and withholds information from nearly everyone he meets. Through Connecticut Yankee protagonist Hank Morgan, Twain compels the thoughtful reader to reconsider what we always thought we knew about ourselves.

Hank Morgan is, like Twain, a liar. By dint of shamelessly masking technological prowess as magic, he becomes the most powerful man in Arthurian Britain, fundamentally altering its society. While a number of writers have postulated that this is one of several malign aspects of Hank's behavior (in keeping with the view, for example, of Connecticut Yankee as a dystopian warning against totalitarianism), the assertion here is that the lies and deceptions he employs are not only necessary but are rooted in moral clarity. Twain's antipathy toward what he perceived as malignant forms of authority--monarchy, aristocracy, slave systems, organized religion--is highlighted in the motif of the morally imperative lie. This is moreover evinced by Twain's stated views on the lie as an integral aspect of the human condition, and in the case of Connecticut Yankee by evidence that Twain sympathized with his protagonist.

In his 1899 essay "My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It," Twain recounts catching a friend in a minor lie (that of returning the greeting of a stranger in pretended recognition) and then reassuring him, "Don't be troubled--we all do it." Twain takes the dishonesty inherent in general human intercourse for granted, as something wired into us. In contrast, he asserts that the "silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples--that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at." Twain here highlights a form of willful self-deception, the "silent assertion" that as long as we refuse to mention an injustice, we can pretend it doesn't exist. As examples he cites the lack of widespread acknowledgement of the early abolitionist movement in the United States, French silence at the injustice of the Dreyfus Affair, and the British public's refusal to recognize Joseph Chamberlain's "manufacture" of the Second Boer War. Another attack by Twain on the deceptions of malignant authority can be found in "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," published in the North American Review in 1901. In attacking the imperialism of his time and its rationales, he quotes a hypothetical proponent of America's war in the Philippines:

    There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.